Special Venue Media: Musings on the Fulldome Market

"So, what's the fulldome market like these days?" That's a question we hear at Loch Ness Productions pretty often--and it's a serious topic of conversation any time two or more fulldome theater folk (or those who want to be in fulldome) get together. In the past year I've had conversations with several media producers at various meetings who expressed some interest in "getting into the fulldome market."

By Carolyn Collins Petersen, Loch Ness Productions

They asked many good questions, but it quickly became apparent that their queries belied a mindset of movie producers looking for new venues to repurpose content into.

They reminded me of an article in a musician’s magazine called Keyboard about concerts in planetariums. The person writing the story seemed to assume that planetariums were like night clubs and that the "club manager" would put up a tip jar for the road-show musicians who were performing on the planetarium "circuit." Clearly the author had not researched what planetarium facilities did (and do) in real life. Certainly planetariums have hosted concerts, but that’s not their main raison d’être. And, there was (and is) no "circuit" that hopeful musicians could "break into" for performances.

It’s a useful illustration of how people who aren’t familiar with the planetarium/fulldome theater often make assumptions that don’t fit with the actuality of the place. The fulldome market has important differences from other media markets. To have a good chance at success in this one, a producer  must learn and take many factors into account: subject matter/concept, target audience, specialized formatting, production, budget and distribution potential. Based on a number of actual conversations I have had, here’s an imaginary (but) typical dialog between me and a hopeful fulldome producer (HFP):

HFP:  So, I’ve got this content/project/movie that would go really well in fulldome. I need to get some idea of the market.

Me:  What’s the show concept? 

HFP: Well, it’s a kiddie show based on a cartoon/puppet show/play that I saw at a festival last year. 

Me:  Is it about science? Astronomy? Educational?

HFP:  Well, no. Does it have to be?

Me: Given that nearly all the fulldome theaters out there are in schools, colleges, museums or other educational or cultural facilities and whose mission statements are to bring astronomy to public audiences — that’s the first question they’re going to ask about your content. 

HFP:  Schools? 

Me:  Yes.  They are still very tuned into getting content that helps them teach science — particularly astronomy. They also don’t have a lot of money — most of them don’t charge admission or if they do, it’s very low. 

HFP:  Oh… well…what about the big theaters? 

Me: In the fulldome world, "big" is a theater dome 15 meters in diameter or more, and so far there are only about 100 big theaters of that size throughout the entire world. Sure, most do buy content; some produce their own. The big domes are more able to afford license fees or pay gate-share.

HFP: Only 100?  How many fulldome theaters are there altogether? 

Me: If you include portable fulldome video planetariums with inflatable domes as theaters, about 500 or so.  That’s in the entire world.

HFP: This project is going to cost me a million dollars to put together because it’s all animation and I have celebrity voices and so on. I need to make that back somehow. I’ve been told that I can make a half million dollars in gate-share the first year if I have the right property.

Me:  Well you might, but that depends on a number of factors: how much you want to charge for your content, how long you license it for, whether or not it’s something that  theaters might want, and so on. Maximizing distribution and revenue in fulldome is complicated. Not everybody who might be interested in buying or leasing your show charges admission so you can’t do the gate-share model with everyone. And what resolution can you make it available in? Will you allow your content into smaller theaters with lower resolution projection systems? Do you know about the different resolutions and formats that fulldome producers have to work with? Do you know what the fulldome theaters want and/or need? Are you considering the overseas market and language translations?

HFP: Ummm… hmmmm….

You can see that this conversation is going right to Rude Awakeningville for the prospective producer or even the new fulldome theater operator who hasn’t researched the "market" for fulldome shows.

The Market Has Answers

That theoretical conversation is useful to spur a discussion of essential issues in fulldome marketing. Those issues are as follows:

•    the numbers of theaters (as of this writing, there are about 550 fulldome theaters "out there";

•    the breakdown of those theaters into various categories (school, museum, public) — and whether  they charge for admission or not;

•    the resolution those theaters can project;

•    the numbers of those theaters that can afford to buy content;

•    the content that’s available – and at what prices;

•    the content that’s appropriate for a given theater’s usage and audiences.

You can slice and dice a number of different scenarios, but no matter what you do, you come up with a pretty small market compared to the numbers of regular movie theaters out there, or even the specialty theaters like IMAX.

To my mind, the biggest factor to consider when thinking about producing fulldome content is that last category:  the content that’s appropriate for a given theater’s usage and audiences. Simply put — and as the conversation above indicates — fulldome theaters are largely used to communicate about the science of astronomy. They’re associated with that topic and it’s why facilities install them. So, the content is still largely tracking that need.

Yes, there is other non-astronomy content out there, but it’s still mostly science. This may change as we bring more new artists and producers into the medium, and I’ve seen a couple of interesting efforts by people who do understand the domed medium and what it can lend to a project. But, to any folks coming into the scene from other media, I suggest that it’s best to really study what content out there already, then figure out how to approach the market with your content. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try new things.  But be aware of the constraints that buyers face when getting content for their theaters.

Price is important, of course. Find out what content these places are buying (and at what price point). And be prepared for a bit of reverse sticker shock — particularly if you are used to working with budgets of at least a million dollars for content and licensing it out for high prices. The fulldome community isn’t set up to afford high license fees. Prices for existing show licenses range from the low thousands of dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

All that being said, the fulldome market is growing. The beauty is that it will continue to evolve, and I can’t wait to see where all of us who produce for fulldome will take it next!